Doing choice right across the pond
In this month's Policy Review, Paul Hill chronicles one key element of Britain's two-decade old education reform strategy, one that does an imaginative job of blending private largesse, innovation and management expertise with public education. As Tony Blair has built atop a foundation of Thatcher-era reforms, he has boosted the popular program of "specialist schools" (secondary schools with an emphasis on engineering, arts, math, etc.) by offering prospective schools onetime government grants of ??100,000 to convert to specialist status, dependent upon the school raising ??50,000 in private donations. Sixty percent of English secondary schools are now specialist schools, and the number continues to grow. The Specialist Schools Trust, a nonprofit organization that receives government contracts but remains a private firm, oversees this fleet of educational institutions and works to support and expand the good ones while weeding out the failures. Hill writes that England was uniquely prepared for the competition in education that specialist schools bring. It has a national curriculum, which necessitates core subjects and thus allows specialization, as well as a national testing system that serves to hold all schools accountable for their results. Moreover, school governance is highly devolved, with principals controlling teacher hiring and firing and ninety percent of school funding. Thus, parents (and communities, benefactors, etc.) can easily judge and choose schools on objective and uniform criteria, and principals have freedom to adapt to individual circumstances. When debating these reforms, Blair heard the same criticism from his own Labour party that choice opponents level in the U.S., yet he persevered and seems to have proven the naysayers wrong.
"Lessons from Blair's school reforms," by Paul T. Hill, Policy Review, June and July 2005